Information Commissioner: Barnet Borough Council should justify banning councillors from sitting in on debates

Times Series: Councillor Alison Moore Councillor Alison Moore

A blanket ban on letting councillors sit in on some debates during council meetings 'should be justified by the council,' according to a government department.

Barnet Borough Council has proposed to forbid councillors from sitting in on meetings from which the press and public have been excluded.

However, by law councillors are entitled to request to see any council reports – including personal documents discussed at committees.

Despite this, Barnet Borough Council insists the motion will help protect sensitive information under the Data Protection Act.

But the Information Commissioner's Office says this decision should be made on a case-by-case basis.

In a statement, it said: “Whether the Data Protection Act applies or not will depend on the content of the meeting.

“If no personal information is being discussed during that section of the meeting, the act wouldn’t apply.

“If it is being discussed, it would depend on the circumstances surrounding the information being considered.

“This includes the expectations of the individual whose information is being revealed – ie, do they know how their information is going to be used, who is it going to be passed on to and would they be happy for it to be revealed in this way?

“The council should be able to justify its decision.”

Councillors have always previously been allowed to remain in the room and read relevant documents when the press and public have been excluded – usually when discussing financial and commercially sensitive information.

Labour group leader Councillor Alison Moore criticised the council's decision.

She told the Times Series: “I am outraged. We’ve been fighting on a platform of transparency and trying to open the council up – and this has gone in the opposite direction by shutting councillors out of key debates.

“It would be detrimental to individual councillors and their ability to do their job. It would highly damage the reputation of the council.

“It makes it look like it’s trying to shut things down at a time when they’re commissioning services from private departments. It would curtail the ability of some councillors to make decisions.”

When quizzed by the Times Series, Barnet Borough Council denied it was a “blanket ban” on allowing councillors to sit in.

However, our source told us: “It is a blanket ban, if the committee agrees it can invite councillors to stay – but they cannot stay in as of right without permission.”

In explaining its decision, Barnet Council said it would cover the “exceptional issues” where the council does not have an automatic right to share information about an individual without permission.

It said: “This would normally be overcome by the councillors need to have this information to “discharge their function” but not always.

“This covers the ‘not always’ and ensures the council does not breach an individual’s rights under the Data Protection Act. It would not cover financial information, only personal information, predominantly in safeguarding matters. This proposal follows legal advice.”

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